The True Tale of the Monster Billy Deanby David Almond
David Almond’s first novel, written for older children, was Skellig (1998). It parallels the stories of two children who find and help an ailing creature who may or may not be an angel, with that of the boy’s little brother who is ill in hospital. It won loads of prizes and has become a staple text of teacher training courses – I read it a few years ago when I was considering applying for a PGCE teaching course. It was a good story, and challenging too in its scope, but it’s true to say that although I enjoyed it a lot, I admired it rather than loved it. When I read that he had written his first novel for adults, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, as I felt it could be equally challenging, which brings me to The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean.
First off, it immediately became clear that this novel was being marketed as a crossover book rather than a purely adult one – the YA cover is on the right. Content-wise there’s moderate swearing and sexual references, and some strong violence.
Secondly, it’s a novel written as a first person account by a teenager who has never learned to read or write as we do – his spelling is largely phonetic. I thought I’d find this irritating but I quickly got used to it and, with practice, Billy’s reading and writing improves over the course of the story. There were a few inconsistencies in the spellings, particularly near the beginning where the phonetic talk is densest but I could ignore that.
The setting is a bombed out village in an unspecified war-torn country, similar to England’s north-east and Scottish borders. The time is now-ish – maybe a few years into the future. Those who remain in the village of Blinkbonny try to carry on life as normal. Veronica Dean is a home hairdresser, much loved by all her clients, but she has a big secret. She has a son – Billy. Billy has been brought up in isolation by her, living only in the back room. The only other people who know of his existence are Mrs Malone who helped to bring him into the world – and his father, who comes to visit now and then. Billy is a good little boy, waiting patiently at home for years while his mother works and looking forward to those visits from his father.
But now he’s a teenager, and it’s time for him emerge from hiding. Mrs Malone has plans for him, for she believes he’s the ‘anjel childe’ as Billy puts it, that he has a gift. Told by Billy, we find out his truths: the story of his childhood, his begetting, why he was hidden, and who his father really is. Once he is introduced to the real world outside his room, we also find out what he makes of it, and it of him. I must admit, it did bug me why Billy’s mother had appeared to teach him nothing during his hidden years in his room – what did the poor boy do all that time? It was amazing that Billy grew up to be such a compliant boy, coming to terms with his eventual freedom rather than running at the first chance, however he will show that he has metal underneath.
Comparisons abound in this novel: Billy is unknowingly imprisoned for his childhood like the boy in Emma O’Donoghue’s Room, however his mother is not incarcerated, she is at least partially free. Billy’s language and coming of age story did bring Russell Hoban’s brilliant Riddley Walker to mind – but that was set millennia ahead, and the language had (d)evolved to reflect the loss of understanding of technology, whereas Billy is just technically illiterate.
The author’s decision to use the phonetic spelling may be off-putting to some readers and maybe wasn’t strictly necessary – Billy could have dictated his story rather than write it down. This also slowed down the action and it didn’t always feel that there was enough to it for me. Although Billy is no angel, they obviously fascinate Almond, and religion – for good or bad – underpinned this novel all the way through which did give a spiritual dimension that was interesting. Ultimately this novel was another case of an intriguing read, but a book which I didn’t love. (6.5/10)
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My copy was kindly sent by Penguin – thank you.
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The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean – pub 1st September by Penguin Viking/Puffin, Hardback, 256pp,